2023 NBA All-Star Game: Best potential head-to-head matchups, pairings

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The NBA All-Star Game is more than just a conglomeration of the league’s talent, it’s a meeting point, a congregation of all the storylines and drama leading up to this point in the season.

Known for its highlights and astronomical scores, the All-Star Game also pits some top-billed one-on-one matchups and creates superstar pairings usually reserved for fantasy teams.

With the All-Star starters being announced tonight, here are some of the most intriguing matchups and pairing we could see.

The All-Star reserves will be announced on Feb. 2.

Who’s starting in the NBA All-Star Game?

Find out on Sportsnet ONE or SN NOW Thursday at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT as the All-Star starters and captains are revealed before the Celtics and Knicks tip-off in Boston.

Most interesting matchups

1. vs.

Is there a head-to-head matchup bigger than this one? It’s been a broken promise the past two years, but chances are both players will be ready and available to play on Feb. 23 in Salt Lake City.

While James looks like a shoo-in to be the captain from the West, Durant just slightly trailed Giannis Antetokoumpo in the East a week ago, so we’ll see what comes of that Thursday night.

James and Durant have played against each other in the ASG before, but fans haven’t had the pleasure of watching them take the floor against one another as captains of their respective squads.

Although they were both chosen as captains the last two years, Durant missed the events due to a hamstring injury in 2021 and a knee injury in 2022.

However, this iteration of the matchup could make up for previous years.

What James has been doing since turning 38 on Dec. 30 is out of this world. He’s been averaging 36.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game, arguably playing better than he has at any point over the last two seasons.

Durant on the other hand, before injuring his knee earlier this month, was averaging 29.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game this season. More importantly, his prowess helped lead the Brooklyn Nets to 21 wins in 25 games and drag them from 12th to second in the East in less than two months.

Despite his injury, Alex Schiffer of The Athletic that he has no intention of missing the game.

“You see all this stuff pass you by, so I want to participate in everything,” Durant said.

The two most iconic members of the NBA’s old guard might finally get the chance to clash, not just as players on their respective teams, but as All-Star captains (should Durant earn more votes than Antetokounmpo).

Even though they didn’t go head-to-head in last year’s game, their live draft on television made for some iconic moments. Most notably when James forced Durant into picking between Rudy Gobert and James Harden, who had been traded from the Nets a week prior.

2. vs.

For two straight years, Jokic and Embiid have topped the MVP voting list. And for two straight years, Jokic has taken the crown — much to Embiid’s dismay.

Though no formal beef or rivalry has been laid out between the two, their stories are intertwined, and escaping comparison one from the other doesn’t seem likely. Both were entrants in the 2014 NBA Draft, Embiid was selected third overall while Jokic was 41st. Then neither played in the 2014-15 season as the Serbian big man stayed with his former club Mega Basket in Belgrade while the Cameroonian nursed a stress fracture in his foot.

Now, both international players are in their prime and seem ready to contend for a title, with the Denver Nuggets sitting atop the West and the Philadelphia 76ers second in the East.

Their play styles differ, with Jokic revolutionizing the position with his passing and Embiid doing the same with his pull-up shooting and defensive impact. What they share is a responsibility for turning claims that the days of big men dominating the NBA are dead into passing gossip, dead in the wind.

More than anything else though, this is a chance to watch the two best centres in the NBA bang bodies down low. A heavyweight bout for the ages. Who needs the Thrilla in Manilla when you’ve got this — The Earthquake in Salt Lake maybe?

3. vs.

After Damian Lillard scored 60 points against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, it marked the 17th time this season that a player has scored 50 or more in a single game.

Otherworldly scoring outputs have become relatively commonplace across the NBA this season, but perhaps no two performances have made a bigger impact on the basketball cognoscenti than Luka Doncic’s 60-point game against the New York Knicks and Donovan Mitchell’s eye-popping 71-point explosion against the Chicago Bulls.

With Doncic and Mitchell near the top in voting in their respective conference backcourts, the two guards could matchup head-to-head in a battle to potentially dismantle former scoring records.

“Let him cook” has almost become the motto of this NBA season, with superstars like Doncic and Mitchell going wild. There’s no better place to cook than at the All-Star Game, where defence isn’t just optional, it’s almost frowned upon, with many favouring an offensive spectacle.

The 50-point mark has only been reached twice at the all-star game: Anthony Davis scored 52 in 2017 and Steph Curry scored 50 in last season’s contest when he hit a record-setting 16 three-pointers. Could we see another if these two members of the NBA’s new guard are given the green light?

There’s also the possibility of the two stars ending up on the same team. Only once have two players on the same team scored 40-plus points. In 2017, Russell Westbrook scored 41 and Davis scored his 52 en route to the All-Star Game MVP.

Additionally, Doncic and Mitchell aren’t the only two to have such explosions this year. Of the potential All-Star starters, Embiid has gone over 50 twice and Antetokounmpo has hit the mark once. One thing is virtually a guarantee, there won’t be a shortage of scoring in this year’s contest.

4. Nikola Jokic vs. Luka Doncic

This year’s MVP race has shaken out to be one of the most interesting of all time, with so many players jockeying for the top spot in projections. As it currently stands, oddsmakers have the two European superstars Doncic and Jokic in the lead.

The All-Star Game isn’t a game that counts towards MVP voting, but it is a chance for one of the two to plant their flag in front of a huge audience.

If one of the two is able to put in a performance for the ages, showcasing their abilities as being a step above the other, could it sway narratives towards one of the prospective candidates?

There have been 14 times in years past that the All-Star Game MVP has also won the regular season award, but it hasn’t been done since Allen Iverson in 2001. Can the winner of the newly-named Kobe Bryant Award buck that trend, securing both trophies in the same year?

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Most interesting pairings

1. LeBron James and

When the situation with the Nets came to a boiling point over the summer, James, fresh off missing the playoffs with the Los Angeles Lakers, seemed to be ready to pounce on a potential trade for his former co-star Irving.

Much of the narrative had soured around Irving for a multitude of reasons, however, rumours continued to circulate linking the Lakers as a potential trade destination for the disgruntled star.

It of course didn’t work out that way, as Durant and Irving both stayed put, but the desire for James and Irving to reunite might come back around if they land on the same All-Star team.

A call-back to their time together on the Cavaliers, though they parted ways dramatically, the relationship between the two never seemed to stray as much as it might have been portrayed. They played on the same All-Star team from 2017 to 2019 but haven’t teamed up since.

With Irving set to become a free agent this summer barring rumours of a in Brooklyn, chatter of him re-uniting with James in Los Angeles could be rampant if the two pair up at this year’s All-Star festivities.

2. The 2025 Free Agent Class

Speaking of free agency, though the next two classes of potential opt-outs don’t feature the biggest names, 2025’s class could be one of the most intriguing the league has seen.

Of the probable All-Star starters, five players are set to become free agents in the summer of 2025: James and Anthony Davis as unrestricted free agents, and Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and Mitchell as potential opt-outs.

Watching guys team up, especially when their skill sets mesh, can spark dreams in the minds of NBA fanbases hoping to see stars team up under their banner.

Such was the case for Toronto Raptors fans during the 2020 All-Star Game when Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry found themselves on the same squad as Antetokounmpo, widening the eyes of all those feeding into Antetokounmpo’s links with Raptors GM Masai Ujiri.

Though it’s a few years down the line, there are parallels in past situations that follow a similar timeline. The 2008 Beijing USA Olympic squad was the rumoured meeting point for when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh hatched their plan to team up as free agents in the Summer of 2010.

3. Team International and Team USA

The NBA, and especially the All-Star Game, has never been so packed with A1 international talent. So much so that the prospect of a five-on-five between a Team USA and a Team International is entirely possible (with one technicality).

If Antetokounmpo is named an All-Star captain by being a leading vote-getter, he could select a team featuring Doncic (Slovenia), Jokic (Serbia), Embiid (Cameroon) and Irving (He was born in Australia, just let it slide), should they be named starters.

On the other side, with James etched in as the opposing captain, he could field a squad with Durant, Curry, Davis and Mitchell.

Though All-Star reserves won’t be named until Feb. 2, the potential of an International vs. USA game goes even deeper when taking into account the rest of the league.

There’s a world where Canadians Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Andrew Wiggins join the above international team, while being flanked by other European and African reserves such as Lauri Markkanen, Domantas Sabonis and Siakam.

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